Valerie Castile says youth give her hope for future

Students who knew Philando Castile say his killing inspired them to pursue activism

A woman puts her fist in the air in front of a mural.
Valerie Castile stands for a photo in front of a mural of her son, Philando Castile, during a rally on the fourth anniversary of his death in St. Anthony, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

On the evening of July 6, 2016, Valerie Castile was sleeping in her bedroom, exhausted after a long road trip back home from a family reunion in St. Louis.

Just after 9 p.m. she was awakened by her daughter, who shared harrowing news about Philando, Castile’s 32-year-old son.

“She told me that Philando was on Facebook dying,” Castille recalled. “So, that’s how I found out.”

Her daughter watched her moaning, bleeding brother on a Facebook Live stream, as it was captured in real-time by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. The video showed a traffic stop in which St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez held a gun on Castile and Reynolds, only seconds after shooting Castile in front of Reynolds and her four-year-old daughter.

Yanez would later tell investigators that he feared for his life and thought Castile was pulling out a gun, not the ID that he asked for. On the officer’s body camera video, Castile — who was legally carrying a gun — can be heard saying he was not pulling his firearm out. Yanez fired the shots seconds later. 

Castile says she still questions Yanez’s explanation.

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“He stuck that gun in that car and shot my son while he was seat-belted in the car and had a woman and a child in the car,” Castile said. “What would make you afraid of a Black family?”

A jury acquitted Yanez of criminal charges in 2017.

It’s been six years since Castile’s death and the later acquittal of Yanez, which sparked enthusiastic protests and calls for change across the nation.

A woman speaks at a podium.
Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile, speaks about his son's life, death, and legacy during a press conference on the five-year anniversary of his death in St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2021

“He's magnified and amplified a lot of the problems within the country,” Castile said of her late son. She believes that his killing exposed police brutality and racial disparities and differences in how Americans who are licensed to carry weapons are treated.

“It made the world stand still,” she said. “It uncovered a plague.”

Though the incident unfolded while classes were out for the summer, the news of Philando Castile’s death quickly traveled across the network of parents of the nearly 400 children at J.J. Hill Montessori School where Castile worked. He was the school’s beloved cafeteria supervisor — affectionately known as Mr. Phil. The people who knew him best say Castile had a knack for connecting with all students, but especially special needs students and students of color.

As one parent of a J.J. Hill student said: “People knew him from his smile, before they even knew his name.” Another parent called him “Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks.”

Before he was killed, Castile had been stopped by police in the Twin Cities at least 52 times and issued citations for minor offenses such as not wearing a seatbelt and speeding, but never for any serious crimes. 

JJ School holds a bench in memory of Philando Castile
J.J. Hill Montessori School in St. Paul, Minn., is the school Philando Castile worked as a cafeteria supervisor.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News file

Many J.J. Hill students, including those who knew Castile and are now in middle school and high school, say the killing and the acquittal inspired a stronger commitment to social justice within them.

Fourteen-year-old Naomi Carter, who attended J.J. Hill in pre-K and kindergarten, is now an eighth-grader at Capitol Hill Magnet in St. Paul. There, she’s part of a student leadership group called “Where Everyone Belongs” and treasurer of the Black Student Union. She said the killing of Castile has helped inspire her to become a lawyer one day.

“I never really said I wanted to be a lawyer until after it happened with Philando Castile. And I held onto that for a long time,” she said. “So, eventually after it happened to George Floyd, then I started thinking about it again. Being a lawyer would really help this because a lot of these cases don’t get tried, and they don’t get justice. If I became a lawyer, then I could try these cases.”

Valerie Castile said she is encouraged by the youth, both those who came through JJ Hill and beyond.

“They're beginning to see what we've been saying all along,” she said. “And I can say technology has been instrumental in that.”

North Star Journey was made possible in part with funds from the Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.